We are humble artisans. We have no philosophical education. We can’t even read. We work with our hands. Our nails are always dirty and our hours are always filled by the demands of our work, our foreman, our wives. And then Nico had to go and mess everything up.
Hey Philo, he says to me one day, leaning over my work so his shadow obscures the leather handle I am struggling to afix to the inside of the shield. The leather is brittle, unyielding. Nestor has skimped on materials again. What colour would you call that, he says, pointing upwards.
Call what? The sky, you mean?
I dunno. Sky-coloured, I guess. Nico’s breath smells like onions. I try to breathe through my mouth until he leans back over his own shield. He’s supposed to be polishing the thin bronze layer that covers the wood, polishing so it catches the sun and blinds the enemy with its light.
He nods slowly, chuckling, and yet serious too. But Nico was like that. Never just one thing at a time.
Sky-coloured, he says. That’s good.
Then it’s the sea he can’t shut up about.
Do you want to know if there’s a storm coming? I ask.
No, no. Just … can you describe it?
The water usually darkens before Poseidon unleashes his fury but today it’s smooth and calm.
Yeah, Nico, I say. It’s full of fish. Can I get back to work now, please?
There’s a large order on and our daily quota has increased. Neither of us particularly like Nestor, our foreman, or his filthy temper. Or the feel of his whip when his quotas aren’t met.
But Nico won’t stop.
It’s just that the poets call it wine-dark, don’t they? Only it doesn’t look anything like wine. And the sky? Hammered bronze, they call it but – and here he lifts up his shield – does that look anything like the sky to you?
I have to admit that it doesn’t.
The sun starts to slip behind the hills. Time to go home. Nico and I sometimes walk part of the way together – he lives just the other side of Diomedes’ field – but I make sure to slip out quickly, barely aware of the cool wind on my overheated cheeks in my hurry. I hear him calling my name, but I don’t turn around.
Myrrhine is worried. Whispers have floated up from the fishing village of foreign ships, of men speaking with strange accents landing further up the coast. Our farmers, dressed as soldiers, not infrequently march off to battle once the crops are in, but war seldom comes to us. The news does not look good.
I tell her about Nico and his questions, mainly to distract her. She frowns and says she is taking the children to her father’s. He lives far inland. They will be safer there.
You can come, she says. If you want to, you can come. You are no slave. Nestor can’t make you stay.
But Nestor gives me work. I don’t need to tell her this; she knows I won’t leave. The simple need to provide for my family makes me stay where my work is.
It won’t be for long, she promises, and kisses my cheek.
It is August now and the sea is troubled. It’s not just restless and heaving, though it is that too, but it seems filled with thunderheads and wires of lightning. The riverbeds are dry and the grass is yellow and crackles underfoot.
Foreign soldiers in dazzling fish-scale armor and pointed caps march into our village. The few of us who are left, who hadn’t run from the ships and the gods’ prophecies, are taken and slaughtered or merely taken. We’re bundled into the hold of their ships, our captors shout at us in babbling tongues. Sometimes they slow their speech, as if talking to thick-witted children, before striking us for not understanding them quicker. I don’t know where Nico is. I stayed behind because I thought he did.
But I am a slave now. The strangers have placed a metal collar around my neck and leashed me to a row of other men, marched me into their ship. We sit huddled at one end, behind the foreign slaves who wield the long-handled oars. I wonder what the strangers’ land is like. Will there be horn-curved oxen grazing in fields? Will they have rivers not yet drunk dry by invading armies? One day, when I have learned their terrible language, will I find they have a word to describe the sky?
It is so dark that I can barely see the others. Just the form of their bowed heads, defeated shoulders. Just the whites of their eyes.
Philo? Is that you?
No, it’s Nestor, you fool. His voice is barely above a whisper. We have to get out of here. Can’t you feel it?
The boat is listing. The voices above us are urgent, the footsteps pounding the deck above our heads hurried.
Can you swim? Nestor asks.
Better stick with me then.
Suddenly he is untying the rope that binds my metal collar to the others. I don’t have time to wonder, let alone ask, how Nestor got himself free. I bend toward the man next to me, the one who smells like he sleeps with goats, but Nestor grabs my arm, hisses in my ear. We don’t have time, he says.
Up on the deck rain pelts down on sailor and slave alike, pours into our eyes. Nestor propels me to the low wall of the ship. I look down. The neat rows of oars aren’t trying to cut through the swell; with the listing of the boat, they can’t even reach the water. There is a splash. And another. Another. Men all around us are turning into rats.
Quick! Follow me!
And Nestor, too, is gone, vanished into the heaving broth. I lurch in the direction of his voice, I reach for the low wall, I jump-
What a fool Nico is. And all the poets. The sea is not as dark as wine. The sky is not like polished bronze. The water, the air. They are clear. They are nothing.