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Authors: Ann Halam

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The lady with the cart of oil was heading for the Paros jetty, where the regular ferry was already in dock. The ship we were waiting for, the mighty Blue Star
Afroditi
, was still far out on the dark sea. Port Authority tugs could be seen guiding her in, their smart oars flashing in the sunlight.

The Naxos Militia were in among the crowd, trying to get the refugees to move on. They had a right, I suppose, but the refugees had nowhere to go. Some of them had set up little camps, oblivious of people trying to get by—as if they thought they could settle down and live on the waterfront. It was a mess. Scuffles were breaking out. Armored men were grappling with unarmed men and women; pathetic belongings were flying about; children were screaming.

The Holy Sisters had arrived. I could see their gray robes moving toward the trouble: but how much good could they do? The militia disgusted me, they made me think of the so-called king of Serifos and his brutal followers. Yet I could understand their frustration, and I had no answers. Me, I just wanted to fling everything I possessed at the miserable folk, and run away.

I got up front and grabbed Dolly’s bridle. Moumi dropped back to keep the rearguard, by Music’s glossy
dark rump. Brainy pressed close to Dolly, our sensible old gray, his ears back and his big teeth bared. We reached the gates of the splendid harbor. We were allowed to pass through, and got waved over to the mule line. Everything was suddenly quiet and ordered again, but I was ready to spit, between fury and shame at my own helplessness.

Moumi started unloading. I began to help, not sure why she was doing this. Bundles of vegetables, wax-sealed jars of honey and Kitron liqueur, sacks of pulses, specialty oils and spices.

“Coin would be better,” she said. “But we haven’t enough.”

We tried to avoid taking coin for our trade goods. Even if the coin is pure, and weighs what it’s supposed to weigh, the metals market changes so fast. You can never be sure what silver or copper is going to be worth, a shipping season down the line. If we were paid in money, we spent it, at once, on fancy sundries: napkins, scented soap, exotic produce. We worked at a taverna, and those things come in handy.

“Better for what?”

“I’m going to give half a mule load to the Holy Sisters,” said Moumi, refastening Brainy’s pack strap with a brisk tug. “They can trade it for food, shelter, whatever those people need. I’ve been running over the figures in my head. We can afford it.”

That’s one of the reasons why I love my mother. She
never puts on airs, like some smug charitable ladies, but she makes up her mind, and does the right thing while I’m floundering. “What’ll Dicty say?”

Moumi grinned at me. We both knew that our boss at the taverna wouldn’t say a thing, except to wonder if she should have given more. “Generosity is good advertising,” she quoted.

“It impresses people,” I agreed, also quoting the boss. “An open hand makes you look successful, and that’s always good for business.”

“I’ll get a receipt. The nuns will tell the refugees who we are, and where we live. They’ll know where to come if they can ever pay us back.”

We sorted out half a load of easily tradeable goods, and Moumi set off. She took Dolly, who could be trusted. Brainy looked after them in disbelief, and then at me with a horrified expression in his big eyes, like
we’re never going to see them again!
He’s a scaredy-cat, poor Brainy. I never knew a brighter mule, but he has too much imagination.

So there I was alone on the dock with the mules, two laden packsaddles and a half load that would be Dolly’s when she came back. Music let out two or three of his cracking great honks (it’s not for nothing he’s called Music), tipped up his left-hand back hoof and drifted off into a trance on three legs. Brainy calmed down and relaxed, with his chin on Music’s backside. I had some
preserved figs in my wallet, and a couple of olive-bread rolls. I propped myself against a packsaddle, chewing, and checked out the action.

Like her sister ship, the
Dimitra
, the ship that had brought us to Naxos,
Afroditi
plied the whole western line between the islands. She was coming back from Fira now—the island which had once been the queen of the Kyklades, a fabulous city-state, but was now a ruined stump of land where nobody could live. The ship had touched at Milos, the obsidian island, where the cutting-edge black glass comes from. She’d be going all the way to the Mainland after she dropped us at Serifos. She had plenty of custom: islanders and foreigners, couriers and merchants; maybe from as far away as Kriti or Eygpt.

The drivers and foot passengers were in the covered arcade. The sun was going down behind Great Mother’s sanctuary isle across the harbor channel, but it was still hot enough to bother people. The Port Authority police, in their spruce white uniforms, were watching the tugs or else had taken shelter in the big, open customs shed. Only mule boys and teamsters’ lads were hanging around the vehicle lines. Among them I could see a gang I didn’t care to meet, and I had a feeling they were talking about me.

I decided to go for a stroll. There was a girl walking on her own along the edge of the dock. She’d caught my eye, so I headed in that direction. She was tall and slim, and had a distinguished look. I thought she might be a
Phoenician, because she was wearing a red dress. The word for Phoenician in our language means “the Red People.” No one really knows why. It’s not as if they’re
red
, as if they’d been painted; they’re more a baked-brick color. But this girl’s skin was dark, a clear, vivid darkness like polished obsidian.

She didn’t notice me, so I kept on looking. She had very good hair. It fell down her back in closely curling black ringlets, not tied or braided but held off her face with combs. Under her red dress she was wearing trousers gathered at the ankle, a style we call “Skythian,” though nobody I know has ever
seen
a Skythian. The dress was fastened on both shoulders, which I liked. The girls on our island leave one shoulder and breast bare, unless they’re doing heavy work. They think this is stylish; to me it looks half-cooked. The two brooches gave her a nice cleavage. She stopped and stared into the clear water of the harbor, pushing a pair of yellow bracelets up and down her arms, lost in thought.

I stopped at a polite distance, just close enough for conversation. “There’s supposed to be big octopus in there. They come out hunting about now; d’you see any?”

“No.”

“Are you waiting for the
Afroditi?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going far? Is the rest of your party in the arcade?”

She looked up, at last. She looked at me very directly,
with somber eyes: letting me know she had too much on her mind to care about my lame chat-up lines. “I’m traveling alone. Thank you.”

I was startled. Every shipping season well-off young people traveled for fun around the Middle Sea, looking for adventure: girls as well as boys. I envied them, and knew that could never be me. But she didn’t look like one of those carefree kids, and who travels
alone?
It isn’t healthy these days, no matter who you are.

The next thing she said surprised me even more.

“I’ve been watching you. The lady you were with: I saw her taking a mule load to the Holy Sisters. What was that for?”

“It’s for the refugees,” I said. “The victims of the Libyan earthquake.”

“That’s what I thought.” Her eyes were black and very sad. Was she traveling to a funeral, maybe? “It was good of you and the lady. Is she your sister?”

“She’s my mother. We’re in the taverna business; we were over here picking up supplies.” I was embarrassed. I didn’t want us to sound like do-gooders. “Generosity is great advertising. An open hand makes you look successful.”

Not a smile. I wanted to say I
was not
trying to pick her up…. Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Back off, make your retreat. But while my attention had been on this beautiful girl, the layabouts I didn’t want to meet had followed me.

“Hey, Perseus. Hey, Big Boy!”

The chief miscreant was right there, strutting, fists in
his belt. The rest of them, brainless mule boys and shiftless oxcart juniors, were bunched behind him.

“Tell your pretty new girlfriend, let’s hear it. Is the yeller-haired ‘lady’ your mother, or your sister?” He smacked his lips. “Or
what
…?”

It is my fate to be unusually big and strong for my age—well, for any age, to be honest. I was hardly shaving, but I looked like a challenge to the muscle-worshipping idiots of this world. This one was a prize specimen. I’d met him before, but managed to get away without having to thump him. He wasn’t from my island, Serifos, or he’d have known better. He was from Paros. Leather straps around his biceps; his bullet head shaved nearly to the skin, Trojan style; a sick, scared and greedy look on his pasty face … He was too old for his company, nothing like my equal and just
dying
to take on the god-touched.

“Blah, blah,” I said. “Yackity-yack. Go ahead and talk, it doesn’t bother me.”

Then he said something else about Moumi, involving our so-called king, that I could not ignore as childish filth. The rest of them sniggered. I glanced around, to make sure the stranger had made herself scarce. She was still there, her black eyes snapping.

“I’ll hold your tunic,” she said. “Take it off.”

She was right, it was a good tunic and it would get wrecked. So I stripped, and went for the foul-mouthed toad. All the fury and shame in me, over those poor people on the waterfront, came boiling to my fists. I used them coldly. A
couple of his friends decided to pitch in, which was
their
mistake. They talk about me, but they never learn.

The hangers-on picked the losers up and hauled them away. I dressed again and sat on a post, mopping the light sweat I’d worked up. “Will they be back?” asked the girl in the red dress. “Shall I fetch the port police?”

“No, it’s all right. I’m sorry you had to see that, but now at least they won’t bother me on the ship. Guys I’ve knocked down tend to avoid me for a while.” I looked at her, mugging apology. “I’m not proud of it.”

She laughed, really laughed, and it was like the sun coming out. Her clear-cut face was suddenly
radiant
. “Yes you are,” she said.

I fell in love, at that moment. Was it because she laughed at me, because she saw through me? I don’t know. It was like lightning, and it had struck us both. I saw the same jolt in her eyes; it blazed in the air between us.

“What’s your name?” I demanded urgently, as if I had a right.

“Oh.” She stared, and shook her head. “Just call me Kore.”

Now
Kore
is a Greek word, and it just means “girl.” It wouldn’t have been so strange if we’d been speaking the language of the islands, which is called “Minoan.” But I knew Mainland Greek, of course—we all do—and she was a foreigner, so I’d assumed she didn’t know our language. We were
speaking
Greek.

“Your name is Girl?” I said, bewildered. I saw her
blush, and I felt like an oaf. She didn’t want to know me; I was wrong about that lightning. It was time to quit. I tried to do it gracefully.

“All right, er, Girl. I’m Perseus, as you may have gathered. I’m from Serifos, from Dicty’s taverna. If you’re ever passing—”

There was a sudden frantic blowing of conches and shrilling of whistles.
Afroditi
was at the dock, and the Port Authority police were marshaling the heavy vehicles. Huge oxcarts, managed with daring and style, and drawn by four and six pairs of massive, fiery beasts (you may think an ox is placid, but not these animals), came thundering down the breakwater and crashed up the great gangplank. It was a sight I loved, this mad, dangerous and totally unnecessary race, but the noise was tremendous, the rush of their passing overwhelming. When I looked around, when I could speak, she was gone.

The sun had gone down, and the stars began to glow in the sky above the ship. My mother was talking to friends. Something remarkable had happened. Our pal Taki the shipping magnate, owner of the Blue Star line, was on board. He’d taken pity on the most hopeless of the refugees, the ones the Naxians refused to keep, and taken them on board. Taki was not known for his kind heart! People were saying that the Holy Sisters must have threatened him with divine vengeance: like all sailors he was terribly superstitious. I was on the upper deck, on
my own. I listened to the
boom-swish, boom-swish
of the oars, the crack of canvas in the breeze. I felt the timbers beneath me taking life, from the ocean that gave the Goddess Afroditi herself birth. The girl who had changed
my
life forever was on board this ship, but I was a tongue-tied fool: I didn’t dare to look for her. A little wooden crate went bobbing by, far below on the choppy dark waves. I shuddered and backed away, stumbling.

“Not got your sea legs yet, Perseus?”

It was the girl in the red dress, holding a shawl around her head and shoulders against the cool of the evening. I noticed she wasn’t wearing her bracelets anymore.

“It’s nothing. Just something I saw in the water.” I knew I was looking sick. I leaned on the side again, and she came to stand beside me, her elbow almost touching mine. Her nearness made my throat close up; my head started to spin.

She looked down. “A wooden box?”

“Anything small, floating, makes me queasy if I’m not expecting it. I don’t really remember why. It’s because of something a long time ago.”

She looked at me; I looked at her. The feeling between us was so real I could hardly breathe.

“I’ve been talking to your mother.”

“Oh.”

“I need a job, I need somewhere to stay, in the islands. She thinks I can work at your taverna. I’m very grateful for the chance.”

“That’s good,” I croaked.

“I was
Sbw’r …
,” she said abruptly, in Minoan. Something that hardly sounded like a word, that I couldn’t try to pronounce. “It’s my temple name. I can’t use it. I can’t use my real Greek name either, at the moment. Will ‘Kore’ do, on the islands?”

I felt incredibly privileged. I knew what a “temple name” meant in Egypt and the East. It was a special thing, rarely shared with anyone. I knew what she was trying to say: she trusted me; she felt the fire too, but she had her secrets … as I had mine.

BOOK: Snakehead
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