Authors: Tom Holt
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Historical Fiction
THE WALLED ORCHARD
An Historical Novel
Athens is a large city situated in the middle part of the country we call Greece. To the north lies Thebes, Corinth is due west, and Sparta some way to the south. The City is surrounded by the region known as Attica, a miserable rocky district where very little can be persuaded to grow. That is all I have to say, for the moment, about the City of Athens.
Well, almost. The first really memorable cockfight I ever saw took place in the City of Athens, outside the Propylaea, where the little path that leads up from the right joins the main stairway. It was a quite unbearably hot day, the sort of day you get when your early barley is wilting for lack of rain and your grapes are turning into raisins on the stalk, and I can’t have been more than nine years old. I have no idea what we were doing in the City at that time of year, but I remember that my father had had to come into see to some business or other and had taken me with him. This was supposed to be a treat, and in the normal course of events it would have been; but what with the heat and the crowds of people I was as sullen as only a nine-year-old male child can be, and if Zeus himself had chosen that moment to come down to earth in a fiery four-horse chariot, I doubt if I would have taken very much notice. But this cockfight was something else.
Of course we had cockfights in our village, and I didn’t think much of them, although I imagine that I was every bit as bloodthirsty as most normal small boys of that age. What this cockfight had that all the others had lacked was atmosphere.
From what I could gather, the challenger, a huge, brightly coloured bird with the magnificent name of Euryalus the Foesmiter, was taking on the southern Attica area champion, a rather tattered-looking creature called Ajax Bloodfoot, and the best part of a hundred drachmas was riding on the outcome. Although I knew little of such matters, I soon guessed that the Foesmiter was expected to make extremely short work of Bloodfoot, who was coming towards the end of his useful life as a fighting-cock and was widely regarded by the better informed spectators as little better than a self-propelled kebab. Had anyone asked my opinion I would undoubtedly have sided with the majority view, since Bloodfoot was considerably smaller than Foesmiter and something drastic had recently happened to his left wing. The Master of Ceremonies — a short man with a neck like a log — announced the two combatants in a loud and glorious voice, such as one imagines Homer must have had, and recited their various pedigrees, contests and victories. From this catalogue of ancient valour what emerged most clearly was that Bloodfoot’s most notable achievements had all taken place well over two years ago, whereas Foesmiter was nicely at the peak of his form, having practically disembowelled a creature called Orestes the Driver of the Spoil only a fortnight ago, and had been living on a diet of ground wheat and lugworms ever since. Then the log-necked man announced that this was the last opportunity for staking money on the contest, and withdrew to the edge of the chalk circle.
At that time, my most prized possession was a single obol. It was the first piece of coined money I had ever possessed, and it was not a beautiful object at that. Some time before it had come into my possession, a previous owner had been extremely sceptical about the nature of the metal it was made of, and had taken a chisel and cut no less than four deep slices in it, three across the owl on the tail side, and one, extremely blasphemously, along the line of Athena’s nose on the obverse. Be that as it may, I loved that obol, for I had traded for it three good-quality hare skins and a broken sickle-blade I had found in the bed of a small stream. When the Master of Ceremonies made his announcement about wagers I can remember saying to myself that I was far too young to start gambling, and that if my father ever found out he would quite rightly skin me alive. But then I seemed to hear the little obol crying out from its resting-place under my tongue — we used to carry our small change in our mouths in those days, before they started issuing those silver-plated coppers which make you ill if you swallow them — and it was saying that it was feeling terribly lonely, and here was a unique opportunity for me to acquire some other little obols for it to play with. There was no risk involved, said the obol; all I had to do was wager on Foesmiter at three to one, and I would have quite a little nest of owls rattling up against my teeth when I went home that evening.
So, when the mob of eager gamblers had subsided enough for me to squeeze my way to the front, I picked the obol out of my mouth, dried it carefully on the sleeve of my tunic, and wagered it solemnly on Euryalus the Foesmiter. Then the trainers each slipped their respective charges a small lump of garlic, which makes them fierce, and thrust them into the circle.
It took Ajax Bloodfoot about thirty seconds to dispose of the challenger. I think that what did it was the mindless ferocity of his onslaught. There was none of that careful walking round the ring and clucking that I was used to back home in Pallene; Bloodfoot simply stuck out his head, made a sound like tearing linen, and jumped on his opponent’s neck. His entire strategy seemed to consist of getting his claws round the other bird’s throat and pecking his head
and this is a most unorthodox way for a cock to fight. A properly brought up, well-educated bird will fight with his spurs, as a heavy infantryman uses his spear; he disdains the other weapons that Nature has armed him with, just as an infantryman prefers not to use his sword unless he absolutely must. The orthodox fighting-cock is therefore at a loss when a small but agile enemy attaches itself to his neck and refuses to let go. I had scarcely got back to the shelter of the edge of the crowd when the Master of Ceremonies was standing in the middle of the chalk circle holding up a rather disordered bundle of feathers, lately known as Euryalus the Foesmiter, and declaring that the champion had retained his title at odds of seven to one. The crowd then seemed to melt away, and I was left standing there with nothing but the grandeur of the Propylaea to look at, and no obol. In the end I walked away and found my father, and explained that I had swallowed my obol. He sympathised and said that it would work its way through my system in a day or so, and be none the worse for its experience. This worried me tremendously, since obviously it wouldn’t and then he would guess that I had gambled it away and be seriously annoyed with me. Luckily, however, he forgot all about it, and I was able to earn a replacement obol by scaring crows by the time I had to account to him.
In many respects I feel a certain identity of experience with both of those birds; for throughout my life I have found that things which one would naturally expect to be easy have proved very difficult for me, while I have successfully survived trials and ordeals that have finished off much taller and more splendidly plumaged men than myself. If I stretch the analogy to its absolute limits, I can also claim that the cockfight is a nice epitome of the story of Athens during my time; Athens, of course, being Euryalus the Foesmiter. Unless your memory is as bad as mine has become over the last few years, you will remember that the Foesmiter had led up to his last encounter with a string of victories over extremely impressive opponents, and that it was the final battle, against an opponent that he was universally fancied to sweep aside, that finally did for him. Add to that his great size and the magnificence of his feathers and crest, and there you have Athens as it was in my childhood, just two years before the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War.
Dexitheus the bookseller, who has paid me good money to write this, would far rather that I started off in the correct manner with something like ‘These are the Histories of Eupolis of Pallene, written down so that the glorious deeds of men shall never wholly be forgotten,’ and then went on to narrate the genesis of the Gods, the birth of the Divine Athena and her founding of the City, the childhood and heroic deeds of Theseus and the second foundation of Athens, the reforms of Solon, the tyranny of Pisistratus, and the part played by the Athenians in the Great War against the Persians.
Here is where Dexitheus and I part company. Dexitheus believes that a book describing itself as a History should have plenty of history in it. I maintain that my readers will either be Athenians and know all that sort of thing already, or else they will be barbarians and outlanders who know nothing at all about our City, and that any prologue capable of putting them in a position where they can hope to understand everything I am about to say would be likely to be twice as long as the book itself and not particularly entertaining. I therefore propose to plunge straight into my story and let my readers sort things out for themselves as they go along. I. believe that they will soon get the hang of it, and if Dexitheus doesn’t like it, he can find someone else to write something to go on all that Egyptian paper he bought so cheaply last summer and has had on his hands ever since.
That still leaves me with the problem of where to start my story. You see, what I intend to do is to tell the story of my life, from my birth in the village of Pallene, thirty-eight years after the battle of Salamis, down to the present day. Nobody has ever been sufficiently egotistical to do anything like that before, and I must admit that the prospect alarms me rather. So I am tempted to skip over the events of my early life and concentrate on the period I can best remember, which nicely coincides with all the most fascinating parts of the history of Athens. But if I do this, and you know nothing about Athens beyond what I have just told you and what you have read on the necks of wine jars, you will soon be quite lost and very upset at parting with a solid silver drachma for such an obscure book; whereas if I start at the beginning and work my way doggedly through to the end, my readers will have lost patience by the time I describe cutting my first tooth and will be following Dexitheus round the Market Square loudly asking for their money back.
All I can do, then, is give you my word as an Athenian and a servant of the Muses that once this book gets nicely under way it will be extremely entertaining, moving and informative, and ask you to bear with me while I deal with all the tiresome material that has to be seen to first. Imagine, if you will, that you are at the Theatre on the first day of the Great Dionysia, and that you have walked in all the way from Marathon or Eleusis on a hot day to see the latest play by that celebrated Comic poet Eupolis of Pallene. First, you must sit through three apparently interminable Tragedies on such mundane and hackneyed themes as the Fall of Troy, the Revenge of Orestes, or the Seven Against Thebes. But you are prepared to make this sacrifice of your time and patience, since you know perfectly well that a Eupolis Comedy is worth waiting for, and when the Chorus come trooping on in their marvellous costumes singing their opening number you will enjoy yourself all the more because of the dreary stuff that you have endured before.
It has just occurred to me that some of you, being young and ignorant, may not have heard of Eupolis of Pallene, the great Comic dramatist. You may never have heard my name before. You may never even have heard of the Great Dionysia, or been to a p lay in your life. I don’t really know what to say to you if that really is the case, except that the Great Dionysia is one of the two annual dramatic festivals we have at Athens, when for three successive days new plays are presented and the best example of Comedy and Tragedy is awarded a prize by the panel of judges, and that in my youth I frequently won the prize for Best Comedy, although most certainly not frequently enough. In fact, before we go any further, I think we should deal with this question once and for all, and then at last I can get on with telling the story. There are a great many things in this book which would conceivably need explaining, and I am certainly not going to explain them all. That would be insufferably tedious. If, therefore, I refer to something which you do not understand or have not heard of, I advise you to keep quiet and use your intelligence to try and work out from the context what is going on, as I have had to do all my life. Pretend that this is not a book at all, but some enthralling conversation you are eavesdropping on in the Baths or the Fish Market.
And now, at last, I shall start my narrative, and soon you will be so completely enthralled by my powers of story-telling that all these problems I have been agonising over will melt away like bad dreams on market-day.
Athens, as it was in my childhood. Now I cannot imagine that you don’t know at least something about the great days of the City, between the Persian Wars and the war with Sparta. ‘They were giants in those days,’ as that buffoon Teleclides says in one of his plays, for it was the time when the plays of Aeschylus were still recent enough to be remembered, and Sophocles was at the height of his powers, and a young man called Euripides had just started to make an impact; when Pericles was laying the foundation-stone of a new temple every other month, and the tribute-money from the Great Athenian Empire was rolling in like a flooded river.
That, at least, is how it seems in retrospect. Now, I was born and bred in Attica, and the City of Athens was always there in the background; but I had little to do with it in those days when the great men you all know so much about were carving their names on the walls of history. My early boyhood was not spent in the company of great men; in fact, it was spent mainly in the company of goats. My father was reasonably well off, and a fair percentage of his wealth consisted of a flock of hardy but troublesome goats which needed looking after. Goatherding is not difficult, but neither is it particularly stimulating and pleasant. Accordingly, as soon as I was old enough to be out on my own, I was appointed Chief Goatherd and turned out on to the sides of Hymettus.