The drum gives me Now; and its silence Then.
Keep the beat and my soul will mend.
My father was a smith. We lived in tiny Dodona in a house behind the forge. We lived with the beat of hammer and anvil, and the longer pulse of heating and cooling. Poor, we embraced the rhythms of starving awhile until we were no longer as hungry, of collapsing exhausted until we were merely tired. My mother foraged meals from thin air and I worked at the fire from a tender age.
Father made a living selling pins, hasps and latches for a few lepta each. He taught me how to repair broken tools. Craning past his massive arm, I watched him steadily beat the ripple pattern of circles on a copper sheet until it became a shapely pot, worthy of Hephaestus, whose hammer icon hung in the forge.
His master was a Guild smith, who died before father could be Journeyed. Father’s craft sprang from glimpses of techniques he was never taught, leveraged into what he needed to know.
The tall oar, planted alongside our path near the road, belonged to the grandfather I never met. He had sailed as a freeman on the galleys. One long absence had become his last. Father wouldn’t talk about him or the sea, referring only to those ‘hard and bloody salt-water times.’ I dreamed him up and rode on his shoulders through the oaks and ate dates from his bag and traced his white scars with my pink finger.
Father threw me out when I was twelve. No warning. No anger. No tears. Just: “There’s not food enough for us all. Find your way now; you’re a man’s age. Your mother says ‘goodbye’.” His grotesque shadow followed me out the door. I found my bag and cloak lying on the threshold. The loaf of bread and bit of cheese on top of the cloak were the last food in the house.
In disbelief, I watched my parents from the nearby copse of woods. Concealed in my play shelter of happier times, I craved to see my mother emerge from the house. When she fed the animals, I inwardly protested that I ate no more than they. I finally wrapped myself in my sheepskin and alternately cried and slept for three days.
The fourth day, I trekked to the market place of Ambracia in southern Epirus, where we had sold jewelry. There, I carried loads, unpacked donkeys and stacked produce for handouts of fish, olives or bread. No one glanced at an apparent orphan in a town of poor fishing families, farmers and expatriates. The loss of my family was a dark lake at the center of my heart and I was without boat or raft to sail it.
The trough invites the crest to pause;
A mated pair, outbound from birth.
Flat? No choice? Then no exciting cause;
Only placid lack of pain or mirth.
I got impatient and caught the same day. With a ring-knife, I tried to separate a gourd-nosed leather peddler from his coin bag. He surprised me with a long blade. He was alert and quick for a big man.
The court could have exiled me or taken off my hand. Instead, a merchant bought the rights to me. He had forty trading ships with oar and sail in constant motion from the cold seas north of the Tin Isles to Tomi and the waters east of Thasos. Free sailors on those voyages could make a profit based on the success of the trip, if they survived. But I would work just to pay back my hundred drachmae debt. Ten thousand lepta!
I would learn to row on a galley with thirty-five other trainees, who had been everywhere, if you added them up: two or three boys from every region in Thessaly, one from Thrace, four from the Peloponnese, others from far away Illyris, Arabia and the southern shores. Some smelled of curry, some of cloves. We were dwarves and giants, brown and black. Cassil was even from my hometown. We had been clever and full of life. Now we were trapped on an island jail in the mouth of Pagasae harbor, as spiritless as oxen hitched to a wagon. No fences required.
We were to train for thirty days under a Rowing-Whip, a company Drummer and a Supplicant, or sea-going priest. A day’s training earned us ten lepta, paid to our account. Lodging, however, cost three lepta each night, food two lepta per meal, and water one lepton. If the weather was too foul to venture out, the day deepened our debt. If we needed sandals, a tunic, or a doctor, we owed the Company. Most of us would die in chains, still in debt; the game was rigged.
To say the first days on our training galley, the Cormorant, were hard would be to call the Aegean damp. We rowed till our arms felt heavy as logs and Marsyas, our trainer/Rowing Whip, seemed the dog of Hades. We weren’t a crew. We did not make friends. We were a pile of rocks, not a wall.
“Oars high!” shouted Marsyas.
Docking, we banged the Cormorant into the training float in front of our barracks. On the same bench as two other sweating, panting boys, our ankles shackled and raw, we forced the thick pole down with our remaining strength. When it thunked on the deck, we shoved it forward under the oar-keep. We released our grips, relieved.
“No! Free your oars by the count!” screamed Marsyas. “Not when you feel like it! Again! Around the course, twice, without mistakes or we’ll do this all night!” Marsyas’ peeling bald head and scarred cheek frightened me. “Together, you garbage eaters! Pull! Dip! Feather! Drop! It’s a four-count!”
“Cadence!” he yelled and the drum began its beat from the foredeck.
Marsyas demanded quiet. Stavros of Thessaly, talked like a rushing stream. When he first arrived, he pumped my hand and said: “I’m glad to meet you, Costas; shaking hands reminds me of milking goats. I’ve milked them from before I was born since there were so many goats and it was either help or go hungry and I got so sick of sleeping with goats and waking up in the dark and milking those steaming goats that my brother and I decided to lie about our age and join the army rather than face another day of it and of course right away we had to walk for days to Thessalonica – which wasn’t so bad itself because at least it wasn’t snowing when we went through the mountains -” and on he went. Marsyas stripped language from him like skin off a rabbit.
Our Drummer was thin, sun-baked and long past drumming the war galleys. Even his drum sounded old, mmph, mmph, mmph, as he beat time in his sleep for his pension.
Mornings, on the Cormorant, started with a sacrifice to the Cabeirii, protectors of sailors. The hooded, hollow-faced Supplicant was unintelligible. We assumed he asked for calm seas and safe return, in the gods’ language. When he lowered his arms, he made the swift cuts that destroyed another pigeon, adding to the stains of the deck. He dripped blood in the water, and tossed the carcass onto a charcoal brazier that hissed in gratitude. When he took his accustomed seat, he wasn’t to be addressed at all.
Day after day, under the grueling sun, we stirred the waters of the bay. Our joints and muscles strained, backs ached, blisters formed on our palms and buttocks. On a return trip from Oreus, Vallus lost the grip of his oar. Marsyas beat him until he lay motionless over his own knees. Vallus’ oar-mates kept time with us, though they almost died.
Various memories of my old Dodona home vied for attention. Hanging off my father’s strong outstretched arm as a little monkey. Watching my mother, tall and regal as an egret, slicing cucumber at our eating table. I saw their bed through the doorway and heard their murmured voices. I knew my family was lost to me. The long nights were unbearable; rowing was only hard.
Let my fellow captives grieve; in my pain, I wanted to see my father slapped in rowing irons.
Erik Svehaug works a day job at a picturesque Santa Cruz lumberyard with steam train tunnel and white cathedral on a hill and writes when he can seize the time. He loves his wife and two inspiring daughters and regularly walks the dog. His shorts and flash fiction have appeared on-line and in print, most recently in an anthology of short stories (Villainy) from Hall Brothers and soon will be found in Qarrtsiluni, Vagabondage Press and the 2011 UMM Binnacle UltraShorts collection. You can find most of his published work at: eriksvehaug.wordpress.com Contact him on at firstname.lastname@example.org , referencing ‘fiction comment’ in the subject line, so as not to become spam.