I've just finished the draft of my current novel, about a man learning to find hope for the future. Since it won't be available for some time yet I have decided to tide things over with a short story I wrote recently which upsets me to read, but which I feel has something to say. And so I say no more - let the words speak for themselves. The story is called 'Balance'.
"Callia, over here!"
"Lower your voice, Nerine, it is not seemly to hiss like the cobra."
Nerine grinned, ever the outspoken one. Her too-lively demeanour occasionally led her friends to worry for her. It was imprudent for a woman to attract too much attention to herself.
"Sorry, Callia." Nerine bowed her head slightly, dark curly hair bobbing momentarily. She seemed so eager to pass on her news that she could not restrain her excitement.
Callia glanced around the cloistered courtyard. In the shade of an awning another pair of female slaves were preparing a salad of cucumbers and rice. Callia wished that had been her assigned task for the morning. She loved the pungent aroma of garlic crushed between stones so that the pulp and juice ran into a bowl, mixing with the smooth oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice that would dress the food.
Nerine gripped the sleeve of Callia's pirahan and pulled her into the shade of the colonnade, out of the merciless sun.
"You make us look suspicious, sneaking in shadows to share whispered words," chided Callia, the older - and prettier - of the two.
"Yes, I know, but I wanted to tell you. I overheard the doctor. The Master is more sick than was thought, and is not long for this world."
Callia felt her pulse quicken, but did not let any sign reach her face. "That is sad news, not something to grin about."
"There is more. Master has asked for you. I was sent to tell you because the Mistress would not. Why is this?"
"It is not your business, and you must learn to use your wide eyes more, and your poking nose and squeaking mouth less. If Master is truly on his deathbed then he may wish to discuss the future."
"You mean, whether there will be a new Master to replace him, or if we will all be split up and sent away?"
"And he wants to see you particularly because you have served him well?"
"I do not like that sly glint in your eyes, Nerine. I do not wish to see it again. If you behaved with half this impudence in front of the Mistress you would have been flogged."
"But you are not the Mistress. You are Callia."
Callia frowned at her. She was impossible. "I go now. Balance be with you."
"And with you, Callia."
Callia waited respectfully, head bowed, as the three ephors filed out of the Master's chambers. The wise men were rarely seen but always had to be treated with utmost honour. They were dressed in the traditional long linen brown tunic of a man, but with dark purple woollen cloaks over one shoulder to distinguish their rank. Although they moved quietly in their soft shoes they smelt strongly of coffee and cardamom, and Callia thought she would have sensed them even in the dark of a starless desert night.
She was surprised from her thought when one of them addressed her. Ephors were normally cold and silent in the presence of a woman.
"Balance be with you," he said, and she looked into his brown lined face, at eyes that seemed very old. His beard was long and dark, and she sensed a certain unexplainable sadness in his expression.
"Balance be with you, Masters," she replied.
Before she entered the room she checked that she was presentable. Her pirahan was clean, a cream yellow, with long sleeves and cuts that ran up the sides from the waist. Below that her daman covered her legs down to her bare feet. Her nails were unpainted, for it was forbidden for slaves to use decoration. Her hair hung loose past her brown shoulders, glossy and black: like a thoroughbred's mane, the Master had sometimes joked.
She pushed through the bead curtain. The Master's room was dark and still, with silk drapes over the narrow slit windows. But it was hot, despite the thick walls that kept out most of the sun's heat.
"Master?" Her eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom.
"Callia. Good. Open the windscoop. I am stifled."
She moved over to it, skirting a pile of embroidered cushions spread across the floor. As she raised the opening a breeze cooled her face, a breeze that had travelled free across the dunes before blowing into a hole at the top of the parapet wall where the windspeed was greatest, and being funnelled down to be a fellow prisoner in the room. There was spice in the air.
"Sit by me." He patted a cushion by the low bed.
His white tunic lay open. He had lost a great amount of weight - it hung like a loose fold of skin, making him seem smaller somehow.
She moved over and knelt by him. His eyes were on her but she did not meet his gaze directly. There was a bowl of millet, boiled into porridge, on a low table nearby. "Would you like me to feed you, Master?"
"No. You have heard the rumours, no doubt. That I am to die?"
"They are true."
She did not reply, but did look into his face. It was so changed. His beard had been shaved but instead of making him look younger it revealed the unhealthy colour and lines of sickness underneath. Pain, even. Only his voice seemed to belong to the man she recognised.
"I see you are not surprised. That is well. It has been a long time since we were alone. Too long, perhaps, I think, when I see your eyes like the desert night, and your caramel skin." His fingertips brushed her chin, raising it slightly. "Beautiful." He sighed, long and low. "But now is not the time, not will it ever come again, I fear." His hand fell back to the sheet, as if he was too tired to support it. "It is a shame how you were born, Callia. You should have been a princess. But we must not question the decisions of Gods. They are just to be acted upon."
"Is there really no hope, Master?"
"No. Definitely no hope. But I am resigned. You are good, Callia, are you not? You respect our traditions, and live as is expected of you. Even when we may secretly question the rightness of some of the strictures, in our secret minds, we cannot speak what we read there. Our culture is strict, and because we survive through it, we must go along with it. At one time I felt that I could read your secret mind, some parts of it, and it contained these questions too. Why? you might ask. Why is the world this way? But you control your thoughts, you have the strength of a man in many ways. That is not why I hold you in such esteem, but it is noble nonetheless."
"As we all do, I obey the laws, and obey you."
"Yes. And you must prepare for my passing, when you will move on after."
The room was filled with just light and shade and voice, it did not seem real any more, no weight to anything. A change, like a change in the wind perhaps. Something different, possibly a different future.
"May I ask what will happen to me, Master? Will I serve the Mistress, or will I go to a new master?"
"Not a new master, but neither will it be the Mistress. One you know."
She wondered who he might mean: riddles and being cryptic were prized values in their culture, but it did not mean that she felt able to penetrate what men really meant. Possibly no woman could. She just accepted his words with a nod.
He asked her to recite a poem, and she did her best to make The Weighing of the Heart pleasing to his ear: but soon his breathing changed, and she slipped out of the room.
The Mistress was outside, sat on a cushioned bench sewing. Although she wore the dark veil of sadness, mikha ashwanti, over her mouth and nose, her haunted eyes watched Callia sharply and without compassion. Callia bowed her head respectfully and moved away.
Had the Mistress listened to their conversation? It would not matter. Everyone knew that the Master had shown Callia favour in the past. It was one of the reasons why Callia was regarded as senior to the other slaves, but meant that from the Mistress there had only been coldness.
Such was life. You gain with one hand, but the sand slips through the fingers of the other, and you end as you started: for all must even out in the end.
Four suns on. It seemed an age before this day had ended. Callia had been helping to prepare food for the visiting ephors, days away from the nearest town and therefore staying on the estate. Only the best would do for them. She had spent so long rolling meat dumplings infused with chilli and vinegar that by the time they were baked she would not have wanted to eat one, even if slaves had been allowed to eat meat. While they cooked she had to monitor the saleeg, careful that the rice and milk cooked together into a solid mix without burning. Someone else had then taken over, serving it with butter and poached meat sprinkled on top.
At last the slaves had been able to prepare and eat their own, simpler, meal before retiring. During the hottest periods some of the luckier slaves were allowed to sleep on the flat roof of one of the adobe buildings, and now she was able to stand at the crenellated parapet wall of the roof and watch the burning sun sink into its hazy red bed on the horizon, allowing the cool desert night to move in. She swallowed up and stored the beauty and peace of the scene using every sense: the many colours smeared across the sky, the fresh smell of olive oil from her meal, the soothing whirr of flying insects and the coolness of the patch of windblown sand beneath the soles of her feet. The things were memories that she would recall when doing mundane tasks, but for them to live in her mind she had to give herself over fully to those sensations.
Tonight she was distracted though. Something had been nagging at her mind recently. Questions to which she had no answers; questions about the world. Had it always been like this, or were things somehow different in the past? And what lay over the horizon where the sun slept? She was imagining different places when Nerine rose from her date palm bedding and moved quietly to stand beside her.
"You often gaze off into the sunset, Callia. What is it you see?"
"It is beautiful, but I see no more than you. The horizon, somewhere I would love to visit."
"It is just desert, isn't it? On and on forever, beyond the last town. I hear that none who venture there ever return."
"Maybe because they find what they are looking for, and don't want to come back."
They spoke quietly so as not to disturb the other slaves who slept on their own mats.
"I was in town today, Callia, and overheard some things. And before you stab me with your tongue, I did as you had told me to - I used my eyes and ears, not my poking nose or squeaking mouth."
"Very good, Nerine. I think that your mind will be as sharp as my tongue one day."
Information was hard to come by. They were told only as much as they needed to know. Many of the slaves never even saw the nearest town; those who were entrusted with going to nearby settlements had little chance to gossip with the women there, since men always watched over them. Callia had been to nearby Horis a handful of times, and always savoured the experience. Of the world beyond she knew nothing, but prayed that one day she would be able to experience it.
"They are building a great stone mausoleum on the dusty plains. Beyond the high rocks, there." Nerine pointed towards a dark shadow at the edge of the estate, past the palm trees and well, only just visible in the last of the light. "Many slaves are forced to work on it. I pity them. It must be hard work."
It was rumoured that slave women who were stronger or less attractive than the rest were worked to the death in construction projects. Callia did not like to believe in such rumours, but they never went away.
"Who did you hear this from?"
"I heard our overseer talking to a man in the town while I was selecting spices in the market. I pretended not to listen, and heard that much before they noticed me and moved away. The mausoleum suggests that they are all prepared for the Master to die."
"They are. The Master told me himself. He said we must prepare also."
"The Mistress is very unhappy. She snaps a lot if things are not perfect. At first I thought it was because she will lose her husband, but I wonder if it is something more? Mistress knows things we do not. I wish I was a Mistress."
Callia glanced around. None of the shapes on their bedrolls stirred.
"Be careful what you say, Nerine," she whispered.
The sun was gone now, the sky and land all dark and indistinguishable as night clouds blocked out the starlight but kept them warm.
"We must sleep now," she said; then, in a surprising impulse, she put her arms around Nerine and gave her a quick hug. For one moment, in the dark, she imagined that Nerine was the child she had never met: the girl she bore from the Master, taken from her before a week had passed, presumably as a gift to the Master of some other estate. There were other rumours of what happened to female slave children, but her stomach knotted at the thought... No, they could not be true.
Then she wrapped herself in her linen sheet, and forced herself to fall asleep thinking of happier things, her final thoughts were that she had a daughter who had been freed, and had gone on to become a princess.
The next day they were told by one of the men that the Master had died and they were all to be in mourning until the next new moon. Some of the slaves wept. Callia did not.
There was to be a ceremony, a symbolic joining made holy by the ephors. Only those slaves most favoured were to attend, and then they would be moved on, not to return to this estate.
That afternoon Callia was approached by one of the ephors. It was not the one with the old and sad eyes, but one who seemed to dislike the task of speaking to her. She was told that she was the first to be chosen of the ten most favoured, and was to be at the ceremony, and she should be most honoured.
She thanked the ephor in formal terms, head bowed, but in her heart was turmoil. She would be leaving the estate at last, and the thought of it filled her with excitement. Would things be different in her new estate? Might she be moved to the town? Might she even one day meet her own daughter, who would now be waist-high, and be able to give her the mother's love that she deserved?
There was also some fear. The unknown was bound to make her feel that, having lived almost all her life on this estate. But she would not focus on those feelings when a better life was a possibility. After all, she was favoured: that had been recognised, and if the world was a logical one, that fact must lead to reward.
She would be sad to leave Nerine. She considered for one mad moment having the impudence to suggest that Nerine should also be favoured, and how she would justify the many reasons to the ephor. Imagined that the ephor would listen coldly but discuss it with the others and agree, and Nerine would follow her into a new life. She considered all that but said nothing. She was not sure why she let the ephor just walk away. Maybe it was because she could not be sure that she would be making Nerine's lot better, and would hate to think that Nerine might be forced to give up a position in the Mistress's inner circle of servants to move on to something that may not be an improvement, just for the sake of Callia's loneliness.
No, the possibility that Nerine would come to despise her for it was not good. Let her stay in her position. Her prospects were good if she stayed modest. That thought made Callia happy.
Nerine was not to be at the ceremony - none but the men and the chosen ones were - but she helped Callia prepare. The ceremonial tunic was a fine white linen, and the favoured slaves were anointed with scented oil. Nerine combed some of the oil through Callia's hair, whilst constantly chattering about her mysterious prospects: where Callia might go, who her new Master might be; and also about what might happen to herself on the estate, whether the Mistress would run it alone or whether a new Master would move in. For once Callia let her run on in that childlike way. She did not want to chide her for anything when they might never meet again.
Solemn music began to drift in through the narrow slits; men were playing the reed nay, its haunting fluted notes conjuring appropriate images of the wind blowing through rocks in holy places, and the wailing of those mourning the dead. Occasionally a Bandir drum would beat, slow as dragging feet and a further call to join the procession.
Callia forced a smile for Nerine, whilst thinking of fitting words on which to part, and was surprised to see tears brimming in Nerine's eyes.
"I don't know why I am so sad, Callia, but I can't help it."
Nerine hugged Callia fiercely, and it numbed her heart to have to remove those arms as the procession passed the adobe. Words seemed pointless and feeble and incomplete; as with the lingering echo of the nay's music in the room, some things were better expressed without language. Callia wiped Nerine's eyes with her thumbs, then kissed her forehead. She stood and walked into the sunlight without looking back, and it took great effort to be strong in the leaving. Compassion and strength: they were the only things of value that she could leave with Nerine which might help her in whatever her future would be, and they would have to be gifts enough.
She joined the other slaves on their procession into the future.
The mausoleum was fresh sandstone blocks, decorated around the top with geometric patterns painted in red and black. The Master's body was inside - it was said that his spirit would be watching from the roof.
The chief ephor was dressed fully in purple robes, a hood casting his face into shadow so that only part of his dark beard could be clearly seen. The other ephors stood nearby, heads bowed solemnly. Beyond them the musicians had lain down their instruments.
Ten goats were tied in a line before the Mausoleum, some nervous, some indifferent. Nearby stood some of the estate's guards and overseers. The estate had never been attacked by the rumoured bandits that roamed the deserts, but they were said to be the reason for the strong men who did not smile and who carried a sharp khukuri knife at their sides.
The ten slave girls were tied too, by the wrists, Callia at one end of the line, being the first chosen. Some of the aspects of the ceremony seemed familiar to her, though she had never attended a funeral. She had seen girls being bound together before, when they came to the estate from elsewhere as new servants. It was symbolic of the tie to a new Master, in the same way that this was no doubt symbolic of the tie to the deceased. Some of the traditions were easy to interpret. Others were impenetrable without the knowledge that men kept to themselves.
The Mistress stood alone behind the slaves, hands also bound.
There was a trench dug in the earth before the ephors.
The chief ephor began to chant in a language unknown to Callia. She felt that it was an older language because of the way the sounds echoed, something kept from the unknown past, though there was no way she could be sure. Everyone stood still despite the discomfort of being in direct sun, since it was a tenet of their culture that things should not change. She was so used to the thought of the same templates being passed down from generation to generation that it was difficult to even imagine how things could be done differently, what change would look and smell and feel like. Change would require breaking the balance, something seen as such a great and dangerous taboo that even to think of it was to feel shame flush one's cheeks.
The words went on and on, possibly only understood by the ephors, a soporific drone that triggered introspection. However, Callia's thoughts were interrupted when some of the guards led the goats towards the trench. Metal spiral hooks had been embedded into the rock before it, and at various points the ropes were wound around them so that the goats remained fixed in a line. Some did not like being moved so pulled, but it was futile, and soon all were fixed in place. Callia hoped it was not as she suspected, but two guards moved to the first goat. One forced it to lie down at the edge of the small trench and sat on its chest. It struggled but could not get back up, the man's weight on its ribs forcing out its air in a horrendous bellow which made the other goats pull fruitlessly against the ropes. The second guard drew his curved khukuri from the leather sheathe at his side, gripped the goat's chin tight in one hand, then cut its throat. The blade was obviously razor sharp, creating a huge gash from which the kicking goat's blood pumped as the guard made sure that it gushed into the gutter in front of the goat.
The other goats obviously smelt the blood and understood what was going on. They struggled and made heart-rending panicked noises, but they were held fast, increasing their terror.
The ephor now spoke in the common tongue. "To join the Master in eternal life, so he shall not want."
Callia had already looked away from the killing, sickened in her stomach. But she could not block out the horrible frightened noises that made her think of a baby crying.
She always felt bad at sacrifices, had no stomach for it. She had only seen it a few times before, a single goat being killed to honour the Gods at one of the festivals. It was always men who took the life, and mostly men who ate the meat, the woman's role being to cook it and serve it to them. On the rare occasions when there was an opportunity to eat meat she usually declined, since she could not separate the thought of the animal's fear from the thing on a plate in front of her; whereas dates and figs and olives, and other produce of the earth seemed more a product of life than death.
The men moved on to the next goat, which snorted as it struggled. The goats were seeing the others die, their blood being drained into a channel, not given the mercy of ignorance. It seemed to take minutes for each animal to cease its frantic and hopeless struggle, life clinging on for as long as possible. It would be forbidden to cover her ears, so all she could do was let her eyes fill with tears of pity. She was not alone in her sympathy, as a glance at the faces of some of her fellow favoured told her.
It seemed an age before the din of horror was almost over. The final goat was being pinned, now the lone cry in the wilderness, having witnessed all of its sisters having their throats torn by the knife. The two executioners were splashed with blood, hazy red beads on their faces and hands mired in gore.
The ephor had proclaimed that the blood was to feed the earth, but she had not heard all of what was said, trying to retreat to the calm place in her mind which was a perpetual sunset of calming hope. The ceremony would not go on forever: then a new life of some sort would begin, duties done and appropriate respect shown to the previous Master. As each goat had died it had been untied and wrapped in linen before being carried into the impenetrable dark rectangle of the mausoleum by other men. She knew that at the end of the ceremony the doorway would be sealed forever to protect the Master's body from the corrosive desert sands and the preying jackal.
The final goat was gone, limp body wrapped and removed.
The ephor announced that they were to move to the trench for the end of the ceremony. He said it was symbolic, and they should not be alarmed.
None of the girls moved at first, just glancing at each other nervously, but when some of the armed men approached they began to walk slowly. It was just a symbol, Callia thought; a gesture of respect and ownership, however gruesome the scene. Only symbolic, she thought, surreptitiously testing the tightness of the fine rope around her wrists and surprised at its resistance. The symbolic tie she had seen in joining ceremonies seemed to fall apart at the slightest resistance after the bondage ceremony was over; these knots were different, tight and slightly cutting. Unnecessarily so, though perhaps funereal ceremonies required more, in the same way that the sacrifice of ten goats - not even to be used for food - showed the scale of this ceremony was greater than others.
As they reached the trench her stomach tightened to see the blood-soaked sand and dirt at the bottom, an unnaturally physical darkening red so different from the ethereal beauty of the reddening skies of her dreams. One of the girls to her left struggled and tried to move away, but of course that was impossible. The ephor told them to be calm, the ceremony would soon be over and they could move on, just to kneel and be calm. Three men encouraged them to do so with firm but not rough grips, and they quickly and efficiently tied the ropes to the hoops. Callia looked at the other girls, sensing fear in their nervous glances to each other, but all still playing the part as they had been told, ingrained decorum and obeisance
They were now all tied. The smell from the pit in front of her was sickening. Even though she did not make the mistake of looking into it again, red smeared the edge of her vision.
The ephor was speech-making again, referring to ancient civilisations that had shown the way. Her mind picked up some sense of it but would not settle or be calm. They were being honoured. Her gaze kept going back to the two blood-splashed guards, who still stood nearby: why had they not departed? She heard sobbing from one of the girls. She noticed that there were still unused linen wraps in the pile which had been used to wrap the dead goats' bodies.
The old ones knew the true ways. The cloths played on her mind. The history of our ancestors goes back 12,000 years. Time that could not be comprehended. The two men with knives had moved a bit closer. The honoured tribes of Sumerians, Egyptians, the Shang Dynasty, Mesopotamia. She had heard of none of those. Other girls were crying, she felt the slight tug on her wrists as one struggled. More recent ancestors, from The West, who had cursed the earth with war and lost the balance, cursed Anglo-Americans. She pulled experimentally at her bonds again, but they were tight. And their evils meant there were now so few men, no balance except what men made for themselves. She could see that the girl next to her was trying to reach the hoop in the ground, to untie herself, but it was no good - moving hands to one hoop was impossible when it meant tightening the rope that was tied to the hoop on the other side. A balance that could not be broken by the person so tied. But by honouring the old ways of the earliest ancestors, the wisest ones, by constant sacrifice and penance the Gods could be appeased and might one day restore the balance. The two men with knives were now to the far left of the line, furthest from Callia. The girls were struggling more, but Callia did not look to her left. Much of the land is now poisoned desert, with deadly winds separating the tribes. Callia turned, and gazed at the Mistress, tied behind them and crying also. Honoured to serve him in eternal life. You must see this. The Mistress had no hate for Callia, she now saw. Any hate that had been there had never been directed at her. She and the Mistress were at peace. Do not struggle. You must understand our reasons, and agree. Only a brief pain, then your souls will be honoured forever.
There was a scream from the other end of the line. The words of the ephor about being respectful and calm were just noise, the meaning behind them like a cruel blade hidden amongst fruit, Callia refused to look to her left, tried to ignore the kicking and struggling of the girl at the edge of her vision, the men watching with hollow eyes. Nine girls to the left of her, she was last. Their screams echoed the ololuge, the ritual scream of sacrifice, and tore at her mind. The sunset, all she could do was focus on that, there could be no escape from this prison that she now saw was more a prison of words and minds than it was of ropes and estates, and there would be no end to the prison until the sun ceased to rise and set. Screaming and struggling, getting closer, her heart was racing and she knew that to look would be to break her trance and she would not be able to stop from screaming herself, screaming out her hatred for all that this system was, and did, and thrived on... She trembled, then movement to her right, the Mistress forced to kneel beside her. Callia would not have to suffer being the last. They looked at each other, a mixed sandstorm of compassion and understanding and hatred and fear uniting them. Callia would not ever see her daughter alive again - if she even was alive - but it would be over very soon, she could hear movement to her left, but for as long as possible she would look into the eyes of this woman to her right and extract as much courage as she would, this woman was not her Mistress, she saw that now. She was her sister.