The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of our journey. On the ship she seemed comfortable enough, but this last overland stage is beyond all her experience and it shows. Her mare stumbles; she’s let the reins go loose again, allowing the animal to sleepwalk. She rides awkwardly, weighed down by her sodden finery. Earlier I suggested she remain on one of the carts but she resisted, such a rare occurrence that I smiled, and she, embarrassed, looked away. Callisthenes, my nephew, offered to walk the last distance, and with some difficulty we helped her onto his big bay. She clutched at the reins the first time the animal shifted beneath her.
“Are you steady?” I asked, as around us the caravan began to ?move.
Touching. Men are good with horses where I come from, where we’re returning now, and she knows it. I spent yesterday on the carts myself so I could write, though now I ride bareback, in the manner of my countrymen, a ball-busting propos-ition for someone who’s been sedentary as long as I have. You can’t stay on a cart while a woman rides, though; and it occurs to me now that this was her intention.
I hardly noticed her at first, a pretty, vacant-eyed girl on the fringes of Hermias’s menagerie. Five years ago now. Atarneus was a long way from Athens, across the big sea, snug to the flank of the Persian Empire. Daughter, niece, ward, concubine—the truth slipped like ?silk.
“You like her,” Hermias said. “I see the way you look at her.” Fat, sly, rumoured a money-changer in his youth, later a butcher and a mercenary; a eunuch, now, supposedly, and a rich man. A politician, too, holding a stubborn satrapy against the barbarians: Hermias of Atarneus. “Bring me my thinkers!” he used to shout. “Great men surround themselves with thinkers! I wish to be surrounded!” And he would laugh and slap at himself while the girl Pythias watched without seeming to blink quite often ?enough. She became a gift, one of many, for I was a favourite. On our wedding night she arrayed herself in veils, assumed a pose on the bed, and whisked away the sheets before I could see if she had bled. I was thirty-seven then, she fifteen, and gods forgive me but I went at her like a stag in rut. Stag, hog.
“Eh? Eh?” Hermias said the next morning, and laughed.
Night after night after night. I tried to make it up to her with kindness. I treated her with great courtliness, gave her money, addressed her softly, spoke to her of my work. She wasn’t stupid; thoughts flickered in her eyes like fish in deep pools. Three years we spent in Atarneus, until the Persians breathed too close, too hot. Two years in the pretty town of Mytilene, on the island of Lesvos, where they cobbled the floor of the port so enemy ships couldn’t anchor. Now this journey. Through it all she has an untouchable dignity, even when she lies with her knees apart while I gently probe for my work on generation. Fish, too, I’m studying, field animals, and birds when I can get them. There’s a seed like a pomegranate seed in the centre of the folds, and the hole frilled like an oyster. Sometimes moisture, sometimes dryness. I’ve noted it all.
I follow my nephew’s finger and see the city on the marshy plain below us, bigger than I remember, more sprawling. The rain is thinning, spitting and spatting now, under a suddenly lucid gold-grey sky.
“Pella,” I announce, to rouse my dripping, dead-eyed wife. “The capital of Macedon. Temple there, market there, palace. You can just make it out. Bigger than you thought?”
She says nothing.
“You’ll have to get used to the dialect. It’s fast, but not so different really. A little rougher.”
“I’ll manage,” she says, not ?loudly.
I sidle my horse up to hers, lean over to take her reins to keep her near me while I talk. It’s good for her to have to listen, to think. Callisthenes walks beside us.
“The first king was from Argos. A Greek, though the people aren’t. Enormous wealth here: timber, wheat, corn, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, copper, iron, silver, gold. Virtually all they have to import is olives. Too cold for olives this far north, mostly; too mountainous. And did you know that most of the Athenian navy is built from Macedonian timber?”
“Did we bring olives?” Pythias asks.
“I assume you know your wars, my love?”
She picks at the reins, plucks at them like lyre strings, but I don’t let go. “I know them,” she says ?finally.
Utterly ignorant, of course. If I had to weave all day, I’d at least weave myself a battle scene or two. I remind her of the Athenian conquest of Persia under the great general Pericles, Athens at her seafaring mightiest, in my great-grandfather’s time. Then the decades of conflict in the Peloponnese, Athens bled and finally brought low by Sparta, with some extra Persian muscle, in my father’s youth; and Sparta itself defeated by Thebes, by then the ascendant power, in my own childhood. “I will set you a task. You’ll embroider Thermopylae for me. We’ll hang it over the bed.”
Still not looking at me.
“Thermopylae,” I say. “Gods, woman. The pass. The pass where the Spartans held off the Persians for three days, a force ten times their own. Greatest stand in the history of warfare.”
“Lots of pink and red,” Callisthenes suggests.
She looks straight at me for a moment. I read, Don’t patronize me.
Now, I tell her, young Macedon is in the ascendant, under five-wived Philip. A marriage to cement every settlement and seal every victory: Phila from Elimea, in the North; Audata the Illyrian princess; Olympias of Epirus, first among wives, the only one called queen; Philinna from Thessaly; and Nikesipolis of Pherae, a beauty who died in childbirth. Philip invaded Thrace, too, after Thessaly, but hasn’t yet taken a Thracian wife. I rifle the library in my skull for an interesting factling. “They like to tattoo their women, the Thracians.”
“Mmm.” Callisthenes closes his eyes like he’s just bitten into something tasty.
We’re descending the hillside now, our horses scuffling in the rocky scree as we make our way down to the muddy plain. Pythias is shifting in the saddle, straightening her clothes, smoothing her eyebrows, touching a fingertip to each corner of her mouth, preparing for the city.
“Love.” I put my hand on hers to still her grooming and claim back her attention. My nephew I ignore. A Thracian woman would eat him alive, tender morsel that he is, and spit out the little bones. “You should know a little more. They don’t keep slaves like we do, even in the palace. Everyone works. And they don’t have priests. The king performs that function for his people. He begins every day with sacrifices, and if anyone needs to speak to a god, it’s done through him.” Sacrilege: she doesn’t like this. I read her body. “Pella will not be like Hermias’s court. Women are not a part of public life here.”
“What does that mean?”
I shrug. “Men and women don’t attend entertainments together, or even eat together. Women of your rank aren’t seen. They don’t go out.”
“It’s too cold to go out,” Pythias says. “What does it matter, anyway? This time next week we’ll be in Athens.”
“That’s right.” I’ve explained to her that this detour is just a favour to Hermias. I’m needed in Pella for just a day or two, a week at most. Clean up, dry out, rest the animals, deliver Hermias’s mail, move on. “There isn’t much you’d want to do in public anyway.” The arts are imported sparingly. Pig-hunting is big; drinking is big. “You’ve never tasted beer, have you? You’ll have to try some before we leave.”
She ignores me.
“Beer!” Callisthenes says. “I’ll drink yours, Auntie.”
“Remember yourself,” I tell the young man, who has a tendency to giggle when he gets excited. “We are diplomats now.”
The caravan steps up its pace, and my wife’s back straightens. We’re on.
Despite the rain and ankle-sucking mud, we pick up a reti?nue as we pass through the city’s outskirts, men and women who come out of their houses to stare, and children who run after us, pulling at the skins covering the bulging carts, trying to dislodge some souvenir. They’re particularly drawn to the cart that carries the cages—a few bedraggled birds and small animals—which they dart at, only to retreat, screaming in pleasure and shaking their hands as though they’ve been nipped. They’re tall children, for the most part, and well formed. My men kick idly at a clutch of little beggars to fend them off, while my nephew genially turns out his pockets to them to prove his poverty. Pythias, veiled, draws the most ?stares.
At the palace, my nephew speaks to the guard and we are admitted. As the gates close behind us and we begin to dismount, I notice a boy—thirteen, maybe—wandering amongst the carts. Rain-plastered hair, ruddy skin, eyes big as a calf’s.
“Get away from there,” I call when the boy tries to help with one of the cages, a chameleon as it happens, and more gently, when the boy turns to look at me in amazement: “He’ll bite you.”
The boy smiles. “Me?”
The chameleon, on closer inspection, is ?shit-?smelling and lethargic, and dangerously pale; I hope it will survive until I can prepare a proper dissection.
“See its ribs?” I say to the boy. “They aren’t like ours. They extend all the way down and meet at the belly, like a fish’s. The legs flex opposite to a man’s. Can you see his toes? He has five, like you, but with talons like a bird of prey. When he’s healthy he changes colours.”
“I want to see that,” the boy says.
Together we study the monster, the never-closing eye and the tail coiled like a strap.
“Sometimes he goes dark, almost like a crocodile,” I say. “Or spotted, like a leopard. You won’t see it today, I’m afraid. He’s about dead.”
The boy’s eyes rove across the carts.
“Birds,” he says.
“Are they dying, too?”
“And what’s in here?”
The boy points at a cart of large amphora with wood and stones wedged around them to keep them upright.
“Get me a stick.”
Again that look of ?amazement.
“There.” I point at the ground some feet away, then turn away deliberately to prise the lid off one of the jars. When I turn back, the boy is holding out the stick. I take it and reach into the jar with it, prodding gently once or twice.
“Smells,” the boy says, and indeed the smell of sea water, creamy and rank, is mingling with the smell of horse dung in the courtyard.
I pull out the stick. Clinging to its end is a small ?crab.
“That’s just a crab.”
“Can you swim?” I ask.
When the boy doesn’t reply, I describe the lagoon where I used to go diving, the flashing sunlight and then the plunge. This crab, I explain, came from there. I recall going out past the reef with the fishermen and helping with their nets so I could study the catch. There, too, I swam, where the water was deeper and colder and the currents ran like striations in rock, and more than once I had to be rescued, hauled hacking into a boat. Back on shore the fishermen would build fires, make their offerings, and cook what they couldn’t sell. Once I went out with them to hunt dolphin. In their log canoes they would encircle a pod and slap the water with their oars, making a great noise. The animals would beach themselves as they tried to flee. I leapt from the canoe as it reached shore and splashed through the shallows to claim one of them for myself. The fishermen were bemused by my fascination with the viscera, which was inedible and therefore waste to them. They marvelled at my drawings of dissections, pointing in wonder at birds and mice and snakes and beetles, cheering when they recognized a fish. But as orange dims to blue in a few sunset moments, so in most people wonder dims as quickly to horror. A pretty metaphor for a hard lesson I learned long ago. The larger ?drawings—?cow, sheep, goat, deer, dog, cat, child—I left at home.
I can imagine the frosty incomprehension of my colleagues back in Athens. Science is the work of the mind, they will say, and here I am wasting my time swimming and grubbing.
“We cannot ascertain causes until we have facts,” I say. “That above all must be understood. We must observe the world, you see? From the facts we move to the principles, not the other way round.”
“Tell me some more facts,” the boy says.
“Octopuses lay as many eggs as poisonous spiders. There is no blood in the brain, and elsewhere in the body blood can only be contained in blood vessels. Bear cubs are born without articulation and their limbs must be licked into shape by their mothers. Some insects are generated by the dew, and some worms generate spontaneously in manure. There is a passage in your head from your ear to the roof of your mouth. Also, your windpipe enters your mouth quite close to the opening of the back of the nostrils. That’s why when you drink too fast, the drink comes out your nose.”
I wink, and the boy smiles faintly for the first time.
“I think you know more about some things than my tutor.” The boy pauses, as though awaiting my response to this significant remark.
“Possibly,” I say.
“My tutor, Leonidas.”
I shrug as though the name means nothing to me. I wait for him to speak again, to help or make a nuisance of himself, but he darts back into the palace, just a boy running out of the rain.
Now here comes our guide, a grand-gutted flunky who leads us to a suite of rooms in the palace. He runs with sweat, even in this rain, and smiles with satisfaction when I offer him a chair and water. I think he is moulded from pure fat. He says he knows me, remembers me from my childhood. Maybe. When he drinks, his mouth leaves little crumbs on the inner lip of the cup, though we aren’t ?eating.
“Oh, yes, I remember you,” he says. “The doctor’s boy. Very serious, very serious. Has he changed?” He winks at Pythias, who doesn’t react. “And that’s your son?”
He means Callisthenes. My cousin’s son, I explain, whom I call nephew for simplicity; he travels with me as my ?apprentice.
Pythias and her maids withdraw to an inner room; my slaves I’ve sent to the stables. We’re too many people for the rooms we’ve been allotted, and they’ll be warm there. Out of sight, too. Slavery is known here but not common, and I don’t want to appear ostentatious. We overlook a small courtyard with a blabbing fountain and some potted trees, almond and fig. My nephew has retreated there to the shelter of a colonnade, and is arguing some choice point or other with himself, his fine brows wrinkled and darkened like walnut meats by the knottiness of his thoughts. I hope he’s working on the reality of numbers, a problem I’m lately interested in.
“You’re back for the good times,” the flunky says. “War, waah!” He beats his fat fists on his chest and laughs. “Come to help us rule the world?”
“It’ll happen,” I say. “It’s our time.”
The fat man laughs again, claps his hands. “Very good, doctor’s son,” he says. “You’re a quick study. Say, ‘I spit on Athens.’”
I spit, just to make him laugh again, to set off all that wobbling.
When he’s gone, I look back to the courtyard.
“Go to him,” Pythias says, passing behind me with her maids, lighting lamps against the coming ?darkness.
In other windows I can see lights, little prickings, and hear the voices of men and women returning to their rooms for the evening, public duties done. Palace life is the same everywhere. I was happy enough to get away from it for a time, though I know Hermias was disappointed when we left him. Powerful men never like you to leave.
“I’m fine here,” Pythias says. “We’ll see to the unpacking. Go.”
“He hasn’t been able to get away from us for ten days. He probably wants a break.”
A soldier arrives to tell me the king will see me in the morning. Then a page comes with plates of food: fresh and dried fruit, small fish, and wine.
“Eat,” Pythias is saying. Some time has passed; I’m not sure how much. I’m in a chair, wrapped in a blanket, and she is setting a black plate and cup by my foot. “You know it helps you to eat.”
I’m weeping: something about Callisthenes, and nightfall, and the distressing disarray of our lives just now. She pats my face with the sleeve of her dress, a green one I like. She’s found time to change into something dry. Wet things are draped and swagged everywhere; I’m in the only chair that hasn’t been ?tented.
“He’s so young,” she says. “He wants a look at the city, that’s all. He’ll come back.”
I let her put a bite of fish in my mouth. Oil, salt tang. I realize I’m hungry.
“You see?” she ?says.
There’s no name for this sickness, no diagnosis, no treatment mentioned in my father’s medical books. You could stand next to me and never guess my symptoms. Metaphor: I am afflicted by colours—grey, hot red, maw-black, gold. I can’t always see how to go on, how best to live with an affliction I can’t explain and can’t cure.
I let her put me to bed. I lie in the sheets she has warmed with stones from the hearth, listening to the surf-sounds of her undressing. “You took care of me today,” I say. My eyes are closed, but I can hear her shrug. “Making me ride. You didn’t want them laughing at me.”
Redness flares behind my closed eyelids; she’s brought a candle to the bedside.
“Not tonight,” I say.
Before we were married, I gave her many fine gifts: sheep, jewellery, perfume, pottery, excellent clothes. I taught her to read and write because I was besotted and wanted to give her something no lover had ever thought of before.
The next morning I see the note she’s left for me, the mouse-scratching I thought I heard as I slipped into sleep: warm, dry.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon. Copyright © 2010 by Annabel Lyon. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.