Life is short, and Art long;
The crisis fleeting;
Experience perilous and
Lucius spoke to Marsyas: “The Red Galley was at Full Stroke, four lengths off the dock.”
Marsyas nodded. He turned to the Supplicant. “How did they know about the challenge?” and he waited, like a cat crouched at the mouth of a gopher’s tunnel.
The Supplicant stared in front of him, trembling. My bench mates moaned and cried for help.
“Stand up,” said Marsyas.
Involuntarily, the Supplicant rose and said: “You can’t touch…”
With one motion, Marsyas swept forward, gathered fists full of the Supplicant’s robes and hurled him over the rail. The man splashed once like a diving pelican, but made no more sound. “He was lost in the crash,” he said, as he unchained Tito and handed him the leather lash. “You call the stroke,” he said.
Marsyas bent to the nearest wounded man.
Only stunned for a moment, Tito spoke to Lucius. Lucius left his post and brought water skins to where Marsyas was binding Atua’s head. The Drummer began to help Cassil.
Tito threw the lash aside. “Marsyas, the keys,” said Tito
As though expecting those words, the older man threw him his ring of keys. Tito handed the ring to Petros, at first bench. “As soon as you are free, six of you help our men to the stern for treatment; then come back to your benches. The rest clear the broken oars overboard and fill benches from amidships forward by pairs until we run out.” He skipped half a beat: “Let’s get them home.”
“Costas,” he said to me. “You beat cadence at my word; Half Stroke, till we sort ourselves out.” He turned to the others: “Any man without an oar, help Marsyas.” The Whip’s eyes met Tito’s briefly. Marsyas nodded curtly.
I stood motionless. “Drummer,” said Tito quietly.
I leapt to the bow and gathered Lucius’ sticks off the deck. Though I felt doomed to produce chaos, I watched Tito with excitement.
“Cadence,” yelled Tito.
As one man, the trainees of the Cormorant, the unseen and worthless, plunged their oars into the water. Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, came my beat, and we gained speed.
“Three Quarter Stroke,” called Tito, obviously pleased. We were moving past the first point with a long row ahead of us.
“Physicians are on land,” Tito spoke just to me. “Let’s fly!” It struck me, then, that we were unshackled. If we went to port, we replaced our own ankle irons. We had the entire sea to choose from; free lives to be lived.
“Full Stroke!” called Tito. Dom, Dom, Dom, sounded my drum, a rich sound, worth much. I caught a glimpse of Lucius’ face; he was looking directly at me. He smiled warmly. I grinned back at him like an unabashed child. I thought my heart would burst from my chest with joy.
At the mouth of the harbor, I shouted: “Scudo!” and allowed eight beats to prepare the stroke. The rowers shifted to Scudo’s Wings with a galley-wide shout. Oar slapped oar, then cut the water, slap slap plunge rise, and even the wounded kept cheering as we raced toward land.
We sailed past our island to the dock of the merchant’s Red Galley. Our stroke had been observed and a cluster of the curious waited for us to make shore.
“Three-Quarter Stroke, going to Half,” yelled Tito.
Eight beats later: “Quarter Stroke” and the cadence slowed.
“Back Stroke,” then: “Oars high!” signaled Tito.
We released our oars by the four-count and our wooden prow kissed the Red dock. Ropes quickly snared our galley in front of a crowd of Greeks, sailors and cargo handlers on the dock.
A short, pale man in a rich tunic stepped out of the gathering. He looked at Lucius across the gunwale of our shallow boat.
“Drummer,” said the merchant. “They tell me you bet your freedom on victory.”
Lucius stood quietly in the open bow, surrounded by our battered shipmates.
“Fortunately, no one accepted your offer,” the merchant smiled. He looked at our sweating, bloody group. “A formidable crew, “he said to us. “Well done.” As he left, he nodded to a tall, bronzed older sailor in blue, calm as a cloud. I knew instantly it was Scudo that now stepped forward, our Drummer’s famous father, not just a legend, but Drummer of Drummers, for kings and heroes, up to that very day.
A pang of envy shot through me. Such a father! To have been the tail of such a comet would be to have bypassed the chains I wore, the abuse I’d taken and the pain I carried. He looked noble in his lake blue tunic.
Scudo stepped to the edge. Marsyas clambered awkwardly to the dock and whispered to him. Scudo gave orders over his shoulder and several men jumped into our boat and began lifting the least injured onto the dock. Others ran for litters.
“Your most dramatic class yet,” he said to Lucius, with a half-smile that reminded me of the Drummer himself.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” said Lucius
“Oarsmen!” said the older man. “My name is Scudo. I began following your progress when you couldn’t seem to keep a Rowing-Whip for more than a week. Lucius has given me details about all of you and I have an announcement. Your training is complete.”
No one breathed. Separation. New strange galleys. Hazed by horny sailors and attacked by pirates? Shackled for the rest of our lives with no Tito, no Lucius, no hope.
As the sea floor exposed before a tidal wave, our ebullient camaraderie disappeared. Our fear and hopelessness flopped on the seabed.
We were silent. Empty. What now?
“All of you will have two days of recovery, with pay.” He paused for the cheering. “Four of you are being invited to apprentice as Drummers at my School, at Lucius’ specific recommendation.” Scudo called out: “Tito. Drax. Cassil.”
An attendant spoke in his ear. “Cassil can join us after recovery from his injuries. And Costas,” he said, looking at me.
My knees went soft. The boat rocked.
We ring with growth
Who seem to only age;
Our scars of crisis
Balanced lives presage.
Time filled our sails then and blew us through the next year.
We drummed steadily; devotedly. Cassil recuperated in Dodona and came back to drum. He brought word my father had died; my mother was gone. Strangers had our old home.
Tito married a merchant’s daughter. I found a safe, slim girl in the town.
A stormy late summer turned to a brighter autumn and a different kind of graduation.
“Sticks down!” Scudo said, loudly.
At the four-count, twenty pair of sticks hit the rims of their drums for the last time together. Like a washbasin, the open-air school on the hill slowly emptied of sound and students. The natural roll of the theater poured out toward the bay where the ships rode at anchor.
A bubble of gratitude emerged from the murky bottom of my heart and grew larger. I thought of my father, buried in far away Dodona. As I stood on Scudo’s sunny doorstep, the image of my father’s tiny gift of cheese and bread, his small unspoken blessing, came back to me. My cold well of hurt was now a fondness for the man with scarred hands and distant eyes. I longed to embrace him, to play for him. He had done what he could.
The design of a tattoo formed in my imagination, something to celebrate the mastery I wished I could share with him: a drum head made of the metal smith’s concentric circles, set in the notch of a crossed drumstick and oar.
When I drum for my future galley, shirtless and sweating, bracing myself in tumbling storm-made swells that toss our bow like a drinking cup, the crew will lean on me and find me solid.
The design on my breast will be my sign:
I am Costas: son of my father, son of the sea and son of the drum.
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.